Race day started with pouring rain just before 7:00 as predicted, although it tapered off to a drizzle and didn’t last long. We had talked about walking up to the Paterberg around 2 or 2:30 as the first pass of the riders wasn’t expected until 3:30 at the earliest, but I changed my mind.
I packed some food and my usual things in my backpack and hiked up alone around 10:30 – I didn’t want to miss a thing. There were already quite a few people there – the race had already started from Antwerp and was on the jumbotron up near the top, and I could see another one down near the bottom of the hill.
There were food and beverage vendors on the large grassy areas on both sides of the road where I was and at least a few groups – mostly young men – were having beer for brunch.
I chose a great spot – tucked up between the barrier and the medical tent. Two men were already there and they welcomed me with a smile. Right across from us there was a tower with three men on top attaching a large camera to a line that goes almost to the bottom of the hill – they got it going and kept it going up and down for the rest of the day.
There were many camera crews walking around and one of them came over and chatted with me a bit before asking if they could film an interview – well, the guy with the mike asked and the guy with the camera said nothing. I was told to ignore the cameraman and not look at him – they made a joke and we all laughed, then the interview started. He asked me why I was there and why I liked cycling, etc – lots of questions and probably some dumb-sounding answers. He liked my bicycle earrings, and thought it was especially nice that I had time-trial ones as well with different back wheels and handlebars. At the end he asked me my name and where I’m from – I debated about which name to use – my real one or my travel one. Where I’m from was easy – I had my usual maple leaf pinned to my backpack, which was visible under the barrier, and I had also pinned another one right onto the barrier where I was standing. He mentioned that he didn’t think there were any Canadians in the race and I agreed – which was stupid of me as Hugo Houle was in the four-man breakaway that they’d shown on the jumbotron.
Several more men joined us behind our barrier as the odd amateur rider came up – at one point there were a couple of kids, working hard and looking very tired. The crowd went nuts for them – cheering, clapping, blowing horns, urging them on – their faces lit up with big smiles – perhaps dreaming of what it might be like to be a pro one day.
Shortly after an amateur race arrived – the ‘La Ronde Fan Ride’ – I was getting pretty good photos and was pleased with the spot I’d chosen.
Then the ladies’ race came – we could see them coming along the road below before they turned sharply for the climb up towards us. Because the medical tent was right next to an access point some people were able to squeeze in front of the barrier and get away with it. One short woman in particular was totally in my way – when the ladies came by many of my shots had the back of short woman’s head in them.
I realized I’d have to move from my excellent spot before the men arrived, so I asked the course marshall nearest me if I could go sit on the grass in front of the barrier just below us where the professional photographers are allowed to go and he said ok. I re-positioned myself and the next nearest marshall called out that I had to move, but I told him the other guy had said it was alright so he smiled and nodded and left me be.
I was sitting between two female photographers who were talking to each other and actually recognized the language – they were Italian.
The cheering started as soon as the men were visible on the road below, and we could tell when they turned the corner and started up the hill – the fans were going crazy.
I crouched down and got some really good shots, although I had to pull back from the road when some of the cars came through – I was surprised they came up at all it’s so narrow and steep.
One of the official cars was belching out clouds of black smoke from underneath – either clutch or brakes I’d guess. I had to stand up before I got the very stinky cloud right in the face.
They weren’t expected to pass the second time for about an hour, so I went back to my first chosen spot – I’d left my backpack there to hold my place, but of course many more people had squished in since I’d left. It wasn’t actually a problem, though, as they were all very nice and when the interview fellow and his camera man came back and called for me by name I was allowed to push through to the front.
My second interview I hope I wasn’t quite as dumb-sounding, and mostly he asked what I’d thought of the first pass of the riders. I told him truthfully it was beyond all of my expectations – and I had pretty high ones. The crowds, the atmosphere, everything was just so exciting it couldn’t be properly imagined from home watching it on tv. I also remembered to mention that there was at least one Cdn in the race and he’d been in the breakaway for a long time.
By the time the racers made it back I had relocated to right in front of the barrier, just beyond where the marshall was holding the ribbon across the access. I did confirm with him first that it was ok, and there was just enough grass that I was off the actual road. I had considered going back to the area below where I’d been for the first pass but there wasn’t one inch of space left – dozens and dozens of professional photographers had converged, some running down the road from above us, and others being dropped off by motos.
Short lady had by then gone and fetched her two tall children to join her – no one was obeying the marshall to keep off the cobbles so they were constantly stepping out and leaning over, again right in my line of sight.
I actually held my tongue and decided not to get upset – I’d been standing there for over five hours and they’d arrived right before the racers and thought it was ok to block my view. But – I was still having a great time and knew I’d already gotten some great photos so I repressed my natural instinct and settled down.
By the time the riders reached the Paterberg for the second time there were only 13.5 km to the finish and they were very tired and strung out. The first to come over the hill was Italian rider Alberto Bettio in the pink jersey of team EF-Drapac.
Short lady’s son kept sticking his arm out encouraging the riders – I have several close ups of his many tattoos.
And there was a second Canadian in the race, Antoine Duchesne, who must be our current national champion as he has the maple leaf on his shoulder as well as his shorts.
Some folks left as soon as the last rider passed, but many stayed to watch the final few km on the jumbotron – also the beer tents hadn’t run dry and were still serving. The Italian in pink held on for the win – the two men that were originally the only ones behind my barrier turned out to be Italian as well so we were all very happy. I had never seen Colin arrive, so rather than stay and drink over-priced rose wine I started walking back to the campervan.
About halfway there I heard my name being shouted from behind – Colin had found me. He’d walked to the cobbles via the lower road and had stayed by the other jumbotron rather than walking up the whole hill – the marshalls were by then preventing pedestrians from using the cobbles so he stayed where he could still get a great view of the race.
It was an incredible day, and I must say that the organizers did a wonderful job – there were clean port-a-potties – with toilet paper!! – lots of garbage bags (although not everyone used them) – the course marshals were good and seemed to know what they were doing (sometimes, sadly, they don’t). Kitty on the way home didn’t care.